OTTAWA – It was 150 years ago today that Canada’s Parliament met for the first time.

On Nov. 6, 1867 the first meeting of the first Parliament of Canada was held in the House of Commons.

On Monday afternoon the occasion was feted by parliamentarians, including MPs, and current and former speakers and prime ministers. A consistent thread at a moment of reflection? Canada and its Parliament remain a work in progress.

“Any democracy worthy of its name is always a work in progress, and it is our duty as parliamentarians to build on the foundation laid by those first Members of Parliament who established the country that it is our privilege to serve,” House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan said, marking the occasion in the House chamber following question period.

Regan called the anniversary an “important milestone in Canada’s history,” and remarked that Ottawa has come a long way since it was classified as a “sub-Artic lumber village converted by royal mandate into a political cockpit,” by essayist Goldwin Smith a decade before confederation.

The Speaker’s remarks were echoed by party leaders and other representatives who rose to speak Monday. They looked back on historic moments, including: the first female MP Agnes Macphail’s 1921 election, the vote to allow same sex marriage in 2005, and the apology to First Nations for residential schools in 2008.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the House, more than any other institution, has written Canada’s history.

“Within these walls, Canada has been reborn countless times ever since confederation, and in our progress we’ve defined the character of a country,” he said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that while most legislative steps taken by the House move Canada forward and bring new freedoms, others have taken the country a step back, or imposed new limits.

“We cannot claim to always be perfect… yet somehow the motley and imperfect assemblages that have gathered here over the last 150 years have achieved something of a miracle. Together the members who came before us superintended a Canada that has grown and flourished beyond what anyone in the first Parliament could have dreamed,” Scheer said.

Parliamentary Leader of the NDP Guy Caron said that while progress has been made, and far gone are the days when the place was dominated by white men, there is more to be done to make Canada’s Parliament reflective of the people who elect its members. He called for all parties to use the occasion to commit to reaching gender parity as soon as possible.

“We are very tiny in this space, because our role is to represent something far bigger than ourselves. We are here for Canada, we are here for a country that we are blessed to live in, blessed to know and love, and we are to cherish that democracy,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

Earlier in the day, Regan was joined by former speakers and prime ministers John Turner, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin to mark the occasion. A new decorative window commemorating the anniversary was unveiled in the Hall of Honour.

The first sitting day

The archived first volume of parliamentary debates offers a glimpse into what that first day was like 150 years ago.

On Nov. 6, 1867, the Parliament met at 3 p.m. No substantive policy was debated that first day, as the first order of business—as is still the case today—was to name a Speaker.

The "honourable gentlemen and gentlemen of the House of Commons" MPs were summoned to the Senate and told by the Speaker that the Governor General insisted the House name its own Speaker before proceeding.

With this instruction, MPs left the Senate, and once back in the Commons, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald got things rolling, nominating West Northumberland, Ont. MP James Cockburn to be the Speaker. Sir George Etienne Cartier seconded the motion.

However, Joseph Dufresne, the MP for Montcalm, Que. quickly took issue with the fact that the nominee couldn’t speak French.

Despite this, the motion went forward and Cockburn was unanimously elected Speaker. Cockburn thanked his colleagues and pledged impartiality.

At this time, Macdonald moved to adjourn the House until half-past two the next day, when work would begin on forming a committee of men from both sides to create the rules that govern the House, taking into consideration successful practices from other parliaments.

Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval used his speaking slot Monday to highlight the squabble over the first Speaker’s French proficiency as an example of language debates still going on in Canada. 

180 ridings, four provinces

In 1867, there were 180 ridings represented in the House of Commons, split among the first four provinces to join confederation. New Brunswick had 15 ridings, Nova Scotia had 18, there were 82 in Ontario, and 65 ridings in Quebec.

There were 14 members of Macdonald’s first cabinet, including Cartier who was the "minister of militia and defence," and Hector Louis Langevin who was "superintendent general of Indian affairs."

The first session lasted about a year and was the longest session of Parliament until 1903. The session was split in two parts, from Nov. 6 to Dec. 21, and March 15 to May 22.

Between 1867 and 1874 the debates were not officially reported. It was an initiative 100 years later to pull together the first Hansard, the traditional name of parliamentary debate transcripts. Before 1875 it was up to newspapers to report on the goings-on, which was done with mixed success, and varying brevity.

Among those that pushed in the decade prior to have the debates recorded consistently was Alexander Mackenzie. In the research done to compile the first debates, it notes that Dufresne, the same Quebec MP that took issue with the Speaker’s French, noted that the best defence against long speeches would be verbatim reporting, a comment that is said to have generated laughter and dissolved discussions that day.